Process filmmaking is crucial to the heist plot: the heist is only exciting if the audience understands just how difficult the job is in the first place. The stakes and constraints must be set up, just so; the thieves need to be competent at their jobs in order to make the heist’s stakes plausible, and the filmmaker must be efficient in setting up the stakes, setting, and potential traps so as to maintain the tension. Mann manages this all with nearly wordless precision.
Under cinematographer Donald E. Thorin’s watchful camera, every conversation—every interaction—becomes a heist. Mann is a process man to his core, with the how always just as important as the why. When Frank and Jessie go on their first combative date, Mann takes the time to demonstrate the way Frank drives his car like a getaway vehicle away from the bar, aggressive and confident. Once he’s got the girl, he’s gone. Frank’s a master thief, and Mann excels at telling stories about men who are very good at their jobs.
He’s especially good at storytelling of the cops-and-robbers variety. His process style is perfectly suited to heist movies; you have to know how things work in order to be able to pull them apart and extract the value out of them, both within the story on film, and in the assembly of that story on camera. The film watches patiently as Frank and his colleagues tap the phone lines before a job, trusting that the audience will pick up on the importance of finding every wire without delivering exposition about what the team is doing in the first place. The story of Thief is as pragmatic as its protagonist, and as abrasive as its Tangerine Dream score, which favors jagged edges as Frank drills into his safes and eases back into ethereal synths during the getaway. Frank’s chasing a dream that doesn’t really exist for anyone; he’s chasing the ghost of the life he thinks he deserves. No one’s going to give it to him, so he’s going to take it by any means necessary—he’ll break in if he has to.
Thorin shoots the action with aggression to match. The metals and industrial tools of Frank’s trade take up most of the frame with their bulk. The color palette is cold blues and rusts and grays, punctured by the shine of the loose diamonds Frank is after, and by the orange sparks his machinery throws. Over everything lies a pall of sickly green: the old sodium lights of downtown Chicago, the color of money, and the color of rot.
Frank knows what he wants and how he wants to obtain it; when he takes Jessie out for the first time, he demands that they talk through their problems right away so that they “can move on with this grand romance.” Their relationship is as transactional as the rest of Frank’s dealings with the world, a mutual understanding that is built on a need for security before it can grow into something that looks like respect, let alone love. We never get the particulars. The two have known each other for five months by the time the movie starts; we don’t see any grand proposal, nor their decision to move in together. Frank shows Jessie his vision board for the future, a collage he made from scraps of magazines and photos in prison: a house, a wife, children, Okla free as the wind. Jessie accepts the terms of the life he’s offered her.